EAST BERLIN -- Walter Janka was transformed from a communist luminary into a political criminal in November 1957, when he held meetings in the Aufbau publishing house to urge reforms on East Germany's Stalinist leadership.
After a Kafkaesque trial, he lost his job as director of Aufbau and was sentenced to five years in prison as a counterrevolutionary. Other Communist intellectuals in his group also were tried and, like Janka, removed from East German society by a regime determined to snuff out even sympathetic dissent.
Now, in a measure of the changing times, Janka has become one of the first of East Germany's thousands of political criminals to be rehabilitated. The Supreme Court -- at the beginning of a process officials expect will take months, if not years -- has overturned his conviction, thrown out his criminal file and ordered the government to pay him compensation.
A special commission of judges and political leaders, meanwhile, has begun drafting a law designed to make the rehabilitation of political criminals easier and faster. The proposal was scheduled for submission to the legislature this month, but the commission has fallen behind in its work because the problem is so vast.
A spokesman for the East German government, Matthias Gehler, on Wednesday promised that all those who suffered injustice during communist rule will be exonerated of charges and given financial compensation as an expression of "free and democratic justice."
Gehler told a news conference: "Any East German who underwent anti-constitutional acts of violence by state bodies or suffered materially, physically or in any other way from unjust decisions by firms or enterprises will be rehabilitated and offered restitution."
In addition to devising a speedy legal process, the commission has to find ways to deal with broken lives and dispossessed families seeking restitution for jobs and property. Perhaps most important, it has to undo the legacy left by a generation of implacable repression in which courts became enforcers of Communist orthodoxy, and gestures of political dissent were treated as criminal offenses.
The legacy also includes much that is beyond the law -- a well of resentment in a society where opinions were dangerous and an unknown number of ordinary people were forced to become police informers. Janka, for example, has resumed an active role in the country's intellectual life but has become embroiled in a bitter court case over statements concerning Wolfgang Harich, a scientist arrested in 1957 who gave testimony at Janka's trial.
Vera Wollenberger, a legislator, said no one really knows how many East Germans were convicted for political opposition to the government during its more than 40 years of Communist rule.
The problem, she explained, is that in addition to political cases tried before the previous government's political tribunal, many others were tried in common courts under penal law. As a result, today's courts will have to review hundreds of thousands of cases to determine who is eligible for rehabilitation.
East Germans captured while trying to sneak across the Berlin Wall into West Germany, for instance, were convicted under criminal law for what was essentially a political gesture, said Guenter Waldmann, a Supreme Court spokesman.
Waldmann estimated that East Germans convicted of political crimes who are eligible for rehabilitation number "in the thousands," but the court has been unable to come up with even an approximate number because of overlap between convictions by ordinary courts and the former government's political tribunal.
Wollenberger, a Green Party politician, was herself convicted two years ago of unlawful assembly for waving anti-government banners during one of the demonstrations that eventually swelled into an opposition movement. After serving three weeks of a six-month sentence, she was sent into exile, but she returned as the regime collapsed at the end of last year.
By then, a general amnesty had freed the thousands of political prisoners in East German jails. But their criminal records, along with Wollenberger's, remained intact. As a result, confiscated property could not be recovered, and lost jobs were impossible to regain.
Wollenberger repeatedly petitioned the court system to clear her record. But her appeals were rejected until after the elections last March.
"Then I became a member of parliament, and it was a sort of scandal," she said in an interview. "I was still a criminal and I was sitting in parliament. So they thought it was better to clear my record."
Even though her criminal file has been thrown out, Wollenberger said, her former employer in an East German publishing house has not been forced to hire her back at her old job. Occupied in politics, she has not pushed the issue, she said.
Waldmann said that although the Communist government's political tribunals have been abolished, the Supreme Court can rehabilitate those convicted of political offenses only if their trial judges are found to have violated law or procedural rules. Appeals of political convictions were possible under the Communist governments, he said, but as far as he could recall, not one conviction was overturned.
Under the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, all convictions handed down by the political tribunal are being reviewed for possible violations of law or procedure, he said. Eight convictions have been ruled invalid in recent weeks and another 40 cases are headed for annulment.
The slow process can be speeded up only when the new law is passed because to do otherwise would require violating statutes as they now stand, he added. "We don't want to replace a time without law with another bunch of decisions outside the law," he said.
East and West Germany will integrate their legal systems after reunification, officials pointed out, presumbably with provisions to purge criminal files of political offenses and to compensate East Germans who lost their homes and livelihoods for their views.
Nevertheless, a new East German law has been judged essential to permit immediate action on appeals by those who want to recover lost property, resume professional positions or simply have the comfort of knowing a hated political judgment has been expunged.